aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Taking science on faith
When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance. The laws were treated as “given” - imprinted on the universe like a maker’s mark at the moment of cosmic birth - and fixed forevermore. Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.
Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are - they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality - the laws of physics - only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science. [...]
Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith - namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence. [...]
It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.
In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.
I was looking for this argument - and making my way vaguely in its direction - two years ago when I wrote my when being right is wrong post. Then I was grappling with some poll (the link is now dead) that found only 35% of Americans believe in evolution.
I happened to have had the opportunity to ask Eugenia Scott of the National Center for Science Education about America’s antipathy towards evolution. I wanted to know what we could do to change that fact and I was dissatisfied with her “we have the facts on our side” answer. We need something more than we’re right and they’re wrong!
My issue is that I believe in science (my scientist friends object to that terminology but in light of the title and tone of Davies’ piece I stand by it). Like any good believer I want others to believe along with me. Still, a majority of them don’t. We need a better argument. Understanding Davies’ point as a necessary precondition to finding it.
GA trans pol accused of gender fraud
This in the reelection battle after she served as openly transgender for four years:
One of the few openly transgender elected officials in the U.S. faces a lawsuit from opponents who allege she deceived the public by identifying as female.
Two losing candidates in the Nov. 6 city council election in Riverdale, Ga., filed a lawsuit last week in Clayton County Superior Court against incumbent City Councilmember Michelle Bruce, accusing her of fraud for identifying as female.The lawsuit also alleges election fraud and seeks to stop a Dec. 4 runoff election between Bruce and the second-place finisher for her post. [...]
Deana Johnson, city attorney for Riverdale, said an answer to the lawsuit was filed Nov. 20 and denies all allegations in the suit including fraud by Bruce. She said the city is awaiting a hearing date.
“She is Michelle Bruce and has been for the past four years,” Johnson said. “She is identified as female on her drivers license. This is a frivolous suit. I really don’t understand what the allegation is.”
Matt Carrothers, spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office, said there is no place to identify gender on the form people file to run for political office in state, county or municipal elections.
“Nowhere on the form does it ask for the sex of a person,” he said. [...]
Bruce, who lives with her mother, said Tuesday that the lawsuit is painful, as is an anti-transgender website administered by anonymous opponents to mock her.
Via Autumn Sandeen:
As a transwoman, It’s a little frustrating to have the word “deceit” frequently linked the to “transgender” and “transsexual”—based on the concept that my transgender peers’ and my gender presentation is a bald-faced lie as too our “real” sex.
When I know how I present my gender isn’t a lie, but knowing that it’s widely perceived as one—well, it’s a little frustrating.
Cooking with Pooh. And eating it too!
The AJC’s Book Page had a squeaker in the vote for World’s Worst Book Title ever:
The winner was “Cooking With Pooh,” which is a real book from Disney. It barely beat out “Letting It Go: a History of American Incontinence,” “The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification” (which I think maybe some people did not realize is also a real book) and “Everything You’ll Need to Remember About Alzheimer’s.Ã¢â‚¬Â�
That title recalled for me a piece that ran in Slate a couple months back by Kent Sepkowitz, a physician in New York City who writes about medicine, titled Eat Crap: Why Americans should ingest more excrement:
Ever wonder why your dog can gobble, lick, and gnaw all he wants along the glorious buffet of a city street and (almost) never get sick? Your dog is used to eating shit. Americans, on the other hand, grow up eating almost no shit at all. Our food is hosed and boiled and rinsed and detoxified and frozen and salted and preserved. Recently, we have begun to irradiate it, too-just in case. As a result, when our bodies encounter the occasional inevitable bug, they’re unhappy. Our centuries-long program of winnowing out all the muck has turned us into sissies and withered the substantial part of the immune system mediated by our intestinal tract.
Kids have it worse than adults. Even with today’s near-sterility, adult intestines have learned enough tricks to ward off major trouble, albeit clumsily. In contrast, modern kids are near-bubble babies. Our mammalian disaster plan is a good one: A child receives antibodies against countless infections from his mother through the placenta and then from breast milk. With that protection, the infant can take his time to develop his own antibodies. But these days, mothers have scant immunity because they too were raised in America the Hygienic. (Also, breast-feeding may be skipped.) So, kids have zero experience with routine gut infections, and when they encounter one that has slipped past our pipes and filters, the result can be catastrophic.
The best response to E. coli and the other pathogens that cause food poisoning is to recognize, humbly, that we can get the food supply almost perfectly clean, but never completely. There’s just too much crap out there: human crap, horse crap, cow crap, pig crap. In the feces of these and other animals are trillions of infectious agents (bacteria, viruses, fungi, worms, and everything else that upsets the stomach). Try as we may to contain the mess, we can never win. Pig dung fouls rivers; cow crap seeps into water tables; human shit kicks back every time heavy rains overwhelm a sewage system’s filtration capacity… So, here’s a suggestion: Rather than frantically throwing money at new ways to eradicate the pathogens that reside in shit, we should fund the boring scientists who focus on untangling the intricacies of the gut’s immune system. Labs, answer this: How much shit can we safely eat and, as importantly, how much must we eat to remain healthy?
Via Crooked Timber.
I Want Sandy
I just signed up for I Want Sandy.
Cory Doctorow, who’s “proud to serve on the advisory board for values of n, the company that produces I Want Sandy,” says:
IWantSandy is an email-based automated personal assistant that has just opened up for public signups. I’ve been using Sandy for a couple months now, and she’s fast becoming indispensable for my life. All you do is CC your personal Sandy address on your mail and throw in keywords, like “Sandy, remember that this is the grocery list” or “Sandy, remind me to follow up on this with Fred on January 1, 2008” and the Sandybot will file away all your minutae for you. Sandy emails you with reminders (she can also communicate by Twitter/SMS). She can barf up all your remembers whenever you need them—just tag your emails with the @-mark (for example @phonenumber @kids @kitchenrenovation @welding) and then ask her for all the items corresponding to a given tag.
The coolest thing about I Want Sandy is the “groupware” function—if I CC you and Sandy on a message with a reminder, she’ll remind both of us. No permissions, no groups, just CC in regular email. The service is free and live and open to all comers.
Matt Wood adds:
You can also email Sandy commands to lookup stuff and send it back to you, very handy if you’re on the move with an iPhone or Blackberry, or, you can always manage all your stuff on Sandy’s website.
Sandy also supports recurring events and tags, so GTD users could easily turn it into a nice, trusted system with mucho lists and contexts.